King's words transcend power of pictures in civil rights exhibit

ART REVIEW

August 06, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes not.

"Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement" at the Baltimore Museum of Art consists of four dozen photographs, accompanying texts, and a video. The video, not surprisingly, is of King delivering his Aug. 28, 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.

As one peruses this exhibit (through Sept. 29) in the long gallery, the video starts to run and King's slowly building cadences roll down the hall in an inexorable wave. It becomes impossible not to go to the television and sit and look and listen.

No pictures can compete with King's words. Surely one of the greatest speeches in the history of the nation, this one was aptly delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, into whose walls are carved the Gettysburg address and Lincoln's second inaugural. Like them, King's speech is simple, direct, pure and generous, as it pleads for "the riches of freedom and the security of justice" for all Americans.

The rest of the exhibit, frankly, has less impact than the speech. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, it brings together images by four photographers: Moneta Sleet Jr., Frederick Baldwin, Benedict J. Fernandez 3rd and Louise Martin.

They trace King in a three-part sequence. "The Man" shows him with his family in photos from the 1950s and 1960s. "The Hero," the largest part, contains highlights from his brief career, including the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. (1956), the trip to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1964), the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. (1965) and the speech at the United Nations (1967). "The Legend" deals with the aftermath of the assassination in April 1968, particularly the funeral.

The photographs are good, some particularly telling. The best are two by Sleet -- one of King and his wife Coretta, singing as they walk in the rain from Selma to Montgomery; the other, for which the photographer won a Pulitzer Prize, of Mrs. King and her daughter Bernice at the funeral.

But the selection of photographs as a whole leaves one a little disappointed (although it may be that there isn't all that much more to select from). There's too much of the official/ceremonial sort of thing -- posed-looking photographs of the Kings at home, a sequence on the Nobel Prize -- and not enough of the nitty-gritty, marching-in-the-rain material that's far more dramatic and effective. Sections on "The Early Days of the Movement" and "Churches and the Movement" contain too few images. (This is not the fault of the BMA -- all of the material that appeared in Houston is here.) The funeral pictures, however, are indeed moving.

It is the speech, though, that contains the soul and essence of the man, and it is the speech above all that makes this exhibit a memorable experience.

Films, concert tied to exhibit

The Baltimore Museum of Art will present several special programs in conjunction with the exhibit "Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement." These include:

* Film: "You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South," Sept. 8, 3 p.m.

* Film: "Free at Last: Martin Luther King, the Man and the March," Sept. 22, 3 p.m.

* Gospel concert: Towson Gospel Choir, Sept. 28, 3 p.m. Reception to follow, hosted by the BMA's Joshua Johnson Council.

* Gallery talk: Jan Howard, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, Sept. 29, 2 p.m.

All programs are free with admission to the museum and open to the public.

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